Building automation systems are powerful tools that can improve operations while reducing operating costs. Facility executives who treat building automation system implementation projects lightly, or attempt to approach them in the same way that they approach a construction or renovation project, will be disappointed with the results. More than any other facility project, a BAS brings together a wide range of technologies that are expected to work seamlessly with other building systems. Seamless operation may require little more than selecting the right components. But getting different technologies to work well together in a BAS is more involved than simply picking the right components, particularly as the state of BAS today is not yet plug-and-play.
There are two elements to successful BAS implementation. The first is making certain that the system is running properly; the second is making certain that the system is used to its capability. A poorly installed system will limit performance and available features, restricting its use and limiting the return on the investment in automation. No matter how well the system is installed, if it is not used effectively, there will be no return on the investment.
Implementing a BAS successfully is not difficult. Many activities required are not all that different from those required for other facility programs. Comprehensive planning, good system design and specifications, careful selection of qualified installers, close monitoring of construction activities, and thorough testing of the installed system are all essential elements. But in the case of a BAS, these activities must be taken to the extreme, for success or failure of a BAS implementation lies in the details.
It is surprising how many facilities spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on BAS implementation but fail to use many of the features provided by the system and paid for by owners. Reviews of systems that have been in operation for a year or more, particularly those installed in larger facilities, show that most are using only a small portion of their capabilities. Although the reasons for not making the most of the BAS investment vary from installation to installation, there are a number of common factors that contribute to the problem.
Facilities, and the people who operate and manage them, tend to be very conservative. New technologies are slow to gain acceptance. There is great resistance to changing how things are done. To a certain extent, this is understandable, given the nature of the business. Facility executives are under tremendous pressure to keep things operating. For them, change introduces a certain level of uncertainty and risk. And a BAS can change everything from how equipment is operated to how it is maintained. To many, the massive changes brought on by a BAS implementation are simply not worth it. As a result, many system capabilities go unused.
One way to help overcome the fear of using system capabilities is through demonstration programs. Instead of implementing a certain BAS feature throughout the facility, select a particular building system or area and establish a demonstration program. Design the program to perform specific functions that staff is reluctant to implement facilitywide. Develop the program to operate for a predetermined period of time. Identify performance criteria, such as energy use or system reliability, that will be evaluated before, during and after the demonstration program has been put in place. Resistance to new programs will be greatly reduced once demonstration programs have proven their effectiveness. That makes it easier to gradually expand them to include other portions of the facility.
Lack of training in system operation is a major reason system capabilities aren’t used fully. Too often, those who are responsible for the operation and maintenance of building systems are the ones who know the least about the BAS. Their training is frequently limited to how to access system information or how to change operating parameters. Rarely does it include the how or why. Without that information behind BAS operation they come to view the system as little more than a remote access system for facility equipment.
Building automation systems change practically everything about how buildings are operated and maintained. But if system managers, system operators and maintenance personnel aren’t trained to make the most of the BAS, system capabilities will go unused. Do not wait until the system is installed to start training. The larger and more complex the system, the earlier the training must be completed. The earlier that personnel can become involved with the system, the more effective they can be in developing a comprehensive installation.
Another factor that contributes to the underuse of system capabilities is a lack of planning. BAS systems must be matched to the needs of a facility. There are no universal BAS designs that can be applied across the board; there are simply too many differences in how facilities are operated. Using a cookie-cutter approach to system design will only guarantee that features will be included that are not needed or cannot be used. Lack of thorough planning also leaves out certain groups who could benefit from the use of the system.
For example, one area where systems are vastly underused is in the diagnostics of maintenance problems. Systemwide monitoring of equipment and conditions within the facility can provide valuable information to maintenance personnel, provided that the information is made available. Malfunctioning hardware, overridden controls and systems that are fighting each other are the types of problems that can be readily identified through data provided by the BAS. Effective planning of BAS installation requires that, early in the process, a wide range of groups be brought together. The facility executive, occupants and maintenance personnel must all participate throughout to ensure that the system being installed meets the needs of the facility.
There is a common misconception that a BAS runs itself. Contributing to this misconception is the widespread belief that a BAS is a labor-saving tool. While the operation of the BAS is for the most part automatic, and the system will improve operational and maintenance efficiency, a BAS cannot be installed and forgotten. All building automation systems require staffing. There is a need for operators to run the system, to schedule equipment operation, to modify system operating parameters and to access system-generated data.
Maintenance personnel are required to regularly test the operation of the system and correct deficiencies as they develop. Also, remember that the system will identify problems within the facility that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. In many applications, the installation of a facilitywide BAS will increase the maintenance workload.
Why then would anyone consider installing a BAS if it will result in a net increase in workload? The keys are efficiency and effectiveness. While more problems will be identified through the use of the system, the maintenance workforce will have tools available through the use of the system to allow staff to work quicker and more effectively. Additionally, those problems would have occurred anyway. It took the installation of the BAS to bring them to the attention of maintenance personnel. Skimping on staffing levels will reduce the effectiveness of the BAS. And with the level of investment being made in the installation of the system, it simply makes sense to staff the operation of the system properly.
If the facility cannot fully staff the installed system, consider splitting the staffing requirements between in-house and contract personnel. Base the split along the lines of where the expertise lies. And consider contracting for additional help on a temporary basis when activities such as system expansions, upgrades and major reconfigurations are scheduled.
Building automation systems are not install-and-forget systems. If they are to be kept in optimal condition, ongoing maintenance will be required. Sensors go out of calibration. Flow switches fail and give false indications. Controllers fail. Unless these problems are identified and corrected, the system will slowly lose its effectiveness.
At least once each year, all system points should be verified. Sensor readings and equipment status should be verified by field technicians and system operators. Operators should be cycled through their entire range. Although such verification is time consuming, it is required if system owners and operators are to make the most of the BAS investment.
Don’t forget system expansions and upgrades. Facilities are constantly changing. The facility’s BAS must keep up with those changes to remain effective.
By following these steps, facility executives can increase the chances that the system they purchase and install will not only meet their needs, but also help them to improve the operating efficiency of their facilities today and into the future.
A BAS installation is not a spectator sport. The facility executive must be involved in the system from the early planning stage through acceptance testing. The greater the level of involvement, the greater the benefit to the users of the system. Early in the planning stages for the system, the facility executive must involve occupants, operating staff and maintenance personnel in the process. Each of these groups has specific needs that must be addressed by the BAS installation. Having them participate in planning will help ensure that the final system will meets their needs.
The role of some of these groups will diminish as the project moves to construction; other groups will get more involved. Involvement is particularly important once the system has been installed and is ready to be turned over to the owner. Before that happens, there are a number of tasks that must be completed by both the installer and the facility executive to verify that the system is installed and operating properly. These steps will require a significant investment of time, but the benefits to the organization far outweigh the costs.
Start by verifying installation of all sensors and control devices. Verify that there is power to all devices and that all devices have been installed and wired properly. Communications between the devices and the central computer must be tested. Turn all devices on and off to verify proper operation. Once the device installations have been verified, all operators and sensors must be calibrated using accepted reference equipment and standards. Control sequences must be tested to prove the proper sequence of operation.
Finally, test the overall operation of the system — including all components, subsystems and software — to confirm that there are no improper interactions that would limit functionality. This acceptance testing or commissioning of the system must be a clearly identified part of the BAS installation contract, which must spell out who will be performing the tests, when they will be performed, who must participate in the testing, and what the contractor responsibilities are, should any component or system fail a test.